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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: King Kong (1933)

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

There are some novels or albums or films that have a clearly underlined thesis. The writer, director, or musician is overtly telling you what the whole point of this specific work is. Sometimes, like in Fargo, you don’t get treated to the treatise until late in the story. In other movies, however, if you’re paying attention at all, you will be told what the point is of what you’re about to see right off the top. 1933’s King Kong is one such film, giving the audience unambiguous bookends that make the same statement about itself. And in case you’re really not sure, one of its characters repeats the same idea more than once during the body of the film. It’s an entirely stupid, old-fashioned, and poorly proven thesis, but there it is, hitting you over the head. I would argue though, that there is another main theme to Radio Pictures’ iconic giant monster movie that can at least be argued to be valid and meaningful.

Join me below and we’ll have a chat about it.

“It wasn’t the airplanes…It was beauty killed the beast.”

Carl Denham’s pronouncement about the reason for Kong’s demise in the 1933 version of King Kong is one of the more famous final lines in the history of cinema. It certainly sounds poetic, and there’s no doubt that ending the movie on these words was no haphazard decision by the filmmakers. After all, it closely mirrors the quote placed by placard at the very beginning of the film.

What’s the original source of this quote, you ask? Well, apparently, it’s not Arabian at all, but just a portentous-sounding set of lines made up from whole cloth by writer/director/producer Merian C. Cooper. By telling us that he culled this quote from some longstanding cultural wisdom, Cooper tries to add weight to his message. And what is that message? Well, it’s hard not to read it as some sort of warning against being taken in by a beautiful woman. Or just against mercy in general. Watch out for those tricksy ladies or you’ll end up dead in the street just like Kong.

It’s also no mistake that it’s enterprising wildlife film director Carl Denham who we get delivering that last line. The character is a transparent stand-in for Cooper himself, who the character shares a number of traits with. Cooper had been fascinated with apes and other wild animals since he was young and had been the target of some criticism over the absence of romance in his previous wildlife films. Denham expresses this same concern early in the movie and is universally recognized by the other characters as the guy who “makes those pictures of those darling monkeys and tigers and things.” Cooper put a character based on himself in his pet project and had that character deliver the idea of the movie multiple times.

Denham plays up the “Beauty and the Beast” angle multiple times over the course of the movie, first when he encounters Fay Wray as Ann Darrow interacting with the ship’s pet monkey and then later encouraging the press to run with it as a part of marketing Kong’s appearances. Elsewhere, Denham admonishes a member of his team, Jack Driscoll, for softening to Ann.

” It’s the idea of my picture. The beast was a tough guy too. He could lick the world, but when he saw beauty, she got him. He went soft, he forgot his wisdom and the little fellas licked him.”

Are we sure Cooper had ever read the original Beauty and the Beast fable? It’s one of those sappy happily ever after stories it sounds like he would scoff at. As it is, he ends up sounding like a bit of a chauvinist to modern ears and…how do I put this? His thesis just doesn’t hold up, even in his own movie. We just saw the airplanes shooting that ape until he fell off the skyscraper. The planes got him. All Fay Wray did was scream. Also, Driscoll is set to marry Ann at the end of the movie, but we never see him suffer a downfall. Are we to assume that happens later?

A more interesting theme that runs through King Kong is the cost of going where you don’t belong.

Nobody is where they’re supposed to be in this movie- – and it’s the cause of all of their troubles. First, Denham and his company intentionally barge onto Skull Island where they interrupt the natives during an important ceremony/costumed production. They don’t make much of an impression, except for Ann of course. The relatively immediate cost of their intrusion is that the natives go where they don’t belong (onto the ship) to abduct Ann as an offering to Kong. Within 24 hours this leads to what might be the destruction of their civilization. In reaction, Denham’s men push further into the wilds of Skull Island where they pay the price when all but Denham and Driscoll are killed in a variety of horrifying ways. It’s hard to sympathize with the cadre of white men crashing through the jungle shooting amazing scientific discoveries dead….especially when they’re mostly herbivores.

Having been carried far into the jungle herself by her host Kong, Ann doesn’t belong there any more than the men attempting to save her. Despite being the adored and honored guest of the mighty ape, the entire environment can’t seem to wait to kill her and Kong spends basically all of his time defending her from one terrifying creature after another.

It’s only when Kong steps through the huge gates and past the walls built by the natives to keep him out that he finally meets his match. He is made for battles with huge prehistoric wildlife, but once he leaves his turf Kong is apparently easy pickings for Denham’s gas bombs.

Just as Ann was a wholly inconvenient guest in the wilds of Skull Island, bringing Kong to New York City for the amusement of high-dollar gawkers is pretty much immediately revealed to be a completely bone-headed idea. He is absolutely incapable of blending in to life in the big city, starting a fight with an elevated train and becoming an habitual peeping tom.

Here’s where we’ve got to address one angle on this “fish out of water” theme that is just unavoidable. To modern eyes, it’s practically impossible to sit through 1933’s version of King Kong without considering that it might have racial overtones. A more forgiving take might be that the practice of abducting those who aren’t like you, putting them in chains, and taking them into your culture so they can enrich you is a recipe for disaster. It’s also pretty easy to view the whole story as an anti-miscegenation treatise.

This ad drawing attention to Edgar Wallace’s early work on the script focuses on the scene in which Kong peels away Ann’s dress (at a level that the actual film couldn’t quite go to).

I want to be sure to emphasize that the film’s original creators, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, denied any allegorical motivations for the story, and it’s entirely possible that what hits us over the head as modern viewers would have passed them by completely without notice. After all, there’s that whole “beauty and the beast” idea that they were so focused on that they could have easily seen as only about male-female dynamics rather than racial dynamics.

Of course sometimes artists are the poorest judges of their own work. Ever since the first time I saw King Kong as a kid I have thought it was an absolute outrage that at no time during the movie does anyone dress down Carl Denham for bringing such a powerfully dangerous beast into downtown New York City where he can wreak such havoc and cause millions of dollars in damage. Denham himself doesn’t appear to recognize his own culpability in all of the death and destruction. He just stands there and sticks to his guns on the theme of the movie he was originally trying to make. Remind you of some politicians?

The fact that Denham is an obvious stand-in for writer/director/producer Merian C. Cooper perhaps makes this unsurprising. During his previous production, Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, Cooper placed his human star in constant danger from wild animals and based the appeal of the film around the actual killing of those animals. The guy was apparently rather used to shrugging off deaths that weren’t inconvenient to him.

These concerns might have been pointed out to Schoedsack after the release of King Kong (Cooper is curiously missing from Son of Kong as either a writer or director), because in the sequel Son of Kong, the Denham character expresses guilt over the events of the first film and is in fact the target of multiple legal actions over the resulting destruction. These facts actually motivate the action of Son of Kong. Still, it seems like a second or two of recognition of his own responsibility in the original film would have been in order. The sequel made less than a quarter at the box office than the original, and we can only guess at how the gap has widened in viewership over the years. How many people reading this have seen Son of Kong?

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Posted on October 31, 2017, in Halloween, Movies, reviews, trailers and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. An appropriate addition to this series for Halloween. I have never seen the original King Kong (nor Son of Kong, for that matter), but I am sure I will get to it someday for historical reasons.

    One piece of Hollywood lore associated with this film is that it was the movie that bit a teenager named Ray Harryhausen with the movie bug—specifically, the strain of movie bug that carried a fascination with stop-motion animation. And thereby an important piece of film history came to pass. 🙂

    Given that this movie is one of the great landmarks in the history of stop motion animation, there’s also going to be a bit of a tie-in with one of tomorrow’s birthday article headliners.

    And of course, today is the birthday of the director of one of the King Kong remakes.

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    • King Kong is an exciting and entertaining action picture that was definitely very influential, not just to Harryhausen, but to a whole generation of filmmakers and studios who released a steady stream of giant monster flicks, especially during the 1950s and 60s. Without Kong, there’s probably no Godzilla, no Cloverfield, and even no Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. 🙂

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  2. I have seen Son of Kong. Probably multiple times. It’s been ages, but I watched just about every version of the Kong story out there including Mighty Joe Young and King Kong Vs. Godzilla. It was part of my monster movie obsession as a kid.

    Maybe that’s why I have never seen the movie through the politically correct lens you are viewing it through here. I haven’t watched the original King Kong from start to finish in I don’t know how long. But I watched a good chunk of it relatively recently and it never crossed my mind to consider race beyond the portrayal of the natives or gender beyond the level of sexism I expect when watching a movie from this era. Your points are valid, but when I watch King Kong I am experiencing it as the adventure movie I watched as a kid. “Big apes and dinosaurs are cool” are about as detailed as my criticism goes.

    I got to see one of the Kong models in a museum when I was in high school. It was so small and the fur was falling away in spots. It was quite an impressive piece of movie history. The same exhibit had the piano from Casablanca which was equally awesome but surprisingly pink.

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    • I would absolutely recommend that anyone who thinks they might enjoy an exciting giant monster movie put 1933’s King Kong at or near the top of their list. There’s no doubt that it is a pretty masterful entertainment in some ways and its iconicity makes it a must if you’re a film buff. The terror of some of the scenes on Skull Island is hair-raising, and there are sequences such as Kong’s reveal that are pretty close to perfect in their pacing and execution. And obviously, the special effects were groundbreaking at the time, leading to plenty of copycats, but few who could match the dynamic energy of Willis O’Brien’s work here.

      I definitely could have written an article along those lines, but for whatever reason that opening placard really caught my attention this time…and then I realized its sentiments were echoed throughout the film and at its end. When a filmmaker goes to such lengths to put across a specific idea in what is essentially a genre picture I can’t help but investigate to see what he’s on about.

      Obviously, I’m judging from the vantage point of more than eighty years in the future and times have changed. But I don’t live then. I live now, and for me part of the fun of going back to see a really old movie like King Kong is in noticing those changes and investigating for myself what is timeless and what does need to be viewed through the glass of time. This is why I did stop to mention that Cooper and Schoedsack had given interviews saying there had been no racial aspect to their thinking on the film. I have no reason to not believe them, but I also can’t deny that the imagery is exceedingly easy to interpret that way. I have to do both.

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      • I didn’t mean to suggest that you were in any way wrong to approach King Kong the way that you did. I imagine a lot of modern viewers watching it for the first time would have a similar reaction. You made some valid points. Given my history with the movie, having seen it at perhaps the ideal age when one doesn’t question the political correctness of a giant ape carrying around a shrieking blonde, most of your concerns never really occurred to me. I can pretty easily dismiss the racial undertones. I don’t feel those were in any way intentional other than some stereotypes which were very common at the time. The same goes for the sexism. Yeah, King Kong isn’t big on feminism, but it was no worse than any other movies being made in the thirties. But I also can’t argue that such a read on the movie is invalid. That stuff is there. You don’t even have to go looking for it.

        Critics have complained that there is no reason to remake King Kong. I think you have made a pretty good argument in favor of updating the story even if the remakes that have been made are flawed. If you had a choice, which Kong would you choose to watch again?

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        • That’s an interesting question. Having just watched the original and having a pretty good memory of the 2005 version I’d have to say the one from the 70s with Jessica Lange. It’s been so long since I saw that one I have no idea if it’s any good or not.

          There were things I really liked about Peter Jackson’s Kong. Naomi Watts was really wonderful in it and so was the period setting.

          But if the question was changed to “which one would you save if all the rest were going to be lost completely so nobody could ever see them again?” Yeah, I’d save the original. It is still thrilling in ways that touch something unique.

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        • I have watched a good chunk of the 70’s Kong pretty recently. Let me assure you, it is the worst of the three Kong films by a lot. I got a nostalgic jolt out of watching it. As you probably know, I am something of a sucker for the seventies anyway. And growing up, Kong was everywhere. The poster for the Dino De Laurentiis was a work of art even if the movie it was promoting wasn’t.

          I was ambivalent about the Jackson version. I think we can all agree it was too long, right? But it has been scrubbed clean of some of the political correctness problems. I would mention the improved special effects as a bonus if we didn’t live in a world where these kinds of CGI effects are commonplace. I actually prefer the more primitive visual effects of the original.

          The “which would you save” question is hardly fair. It’s heavily tilted towards historical importance. Anyone who wouldn’t save the original is a monster. I am willing to bet Jackson would torch the last print of his remake if it meant saving the original movie.

          It’s been a little while since I have watched the Jackson version, so that might be the one I would flip to if all three were on the air simultaneously. But taking that out of the equation, I would watch the original over either of the remakes more often than not. And I would ride Skull Island over watching any of them. 😉

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